Who Ya Gonna Call? Gumbusters!

Who is out there to finally clean up U.S. sidewalks once and for all?

June 21, 2000

Who is out there to finally clean up U.S. sidewalks once and for all?

Walking from the subway stop to our office in Washington, D.C., the other day, I almost stumbled into a lady wearing a promotional T-shirt and armed with cleaning agents, technical devices and stickers. Apparently she is a professional gumbuster and her T-shirt invites the curious to “Call 1-877- GUMBUST.”

Her main weapon of war was a type of a vacuum cleaner, with which she was removing slabs of chewing gum from the pavement. This fiendish device steams and applies heat, while a guaranteed toxic free cleaning agent takes care of the rest, effectively vaporizing the nasty black gum stain.

But something about the gumbuster aroused my suspicions. The United States is not usually the place for such frantic cleaning efforts. Sparkling Switzerland, perhaps, or well-organized, house-proud Germany, would be the natural home of this invention. After all, American cities have much bigger issues to tackle than gum control.

Washington’s basic infrastructure is in appalling disrepair, which is particularly shameful after years of economic boom in the United States. Potholes do not make for pleasant driving. Roads are in appalling condition and neighborhood communities are cajoled into adopting a street, in other words, paying for the repair of the potholes themselves.

Just imagine the thoughts of a tourist from Moscow who has just arrived in the Big Apple. Crossing in a cab on one of the bridges into Manhattan, our Muscovite probably won’t believe his eyes. Flaking paint and corrosion everywhere make the visitor wonder whether the bridge is structurally sound. Somehow it is reminiscent of Moscow back in 1985

The great exception is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. There, a paint crew is on the job 365 days a year, literally splashing buckets of paint onto the world’s most famous bridge.

Once they have reached one end, they turn around and do it all over again. That must be a reflection of the perfectionism of nearby Silicon Valley in San Francisco — as opposed to the “poverty” in New York, where the authorities evidently can’t afford to pamper their bridges.

This astonishing contrast between the poor maintenance of infrastructure and the war the gum in the U.S. capital jeopardizes much of the common prejudice against the United States and its poor city services.Could Washington be rethinking its strategy on self-presentation? The new approach is evidently to reshape the image of a city from the streets up — by removing gum stains rather than waiting around for improvements to drop from heaven.

To learn more, I ventured onto the gumbuster’s homepage. It turns out the United States is a brand-new market for the gumbuster brigades. The company, the product and the technique all come from Europe. So now we know. The all- powerful United States may be running the show on the economic front, but the Americans need European know-how to clean up afterwards.